Qi-Tech and exclamo, winners of the YOUNG FOUNDERS competition, in San Francisco: Jan (left), Julius, Milan, Paul, and Kai


Winning “young founders” team describes its journey to Silicon Valley

The entrepreneurial spirit of the students was almost palpable in the Porsche training center in Stuttgart in June, and the future business founders bubbled with excitement at their trade show booths. This could only mean one thing: It was the national finals of the YOUNG FOUNDERS competition again. Among the competitors were Milan von dem Bussche and Paul Nehme, both students at St. Katharinen High School in Oppenheim (Rhineland-Palatinate), and Kai Lanz, Jan Wilhelm, and Julius de Gruyter from Canisius College in Berlin. These were the students who emerged as winners out of the more than 4,000 entrants to the high school contest, which was organized by the Steinbeis Innovation Center for Business Development at Pforzheim. In the end, the jury awarded a joint first prize to both teams. The reward for the young business founders: a guided tour to the cradle of entrepreneurship, Silicon Valley – funded as in past years by Steinbeis. The five young men embarked on their journey in late October and their guide for the tour was YOUNG FOUNDERS jury member Professor Dr. Nils Högsdal. No sooner had they touched down again in Germany, the young travelers emailed us their travel report.

“Once we’d gotten over the exhausting flight across the Atlantic and even more exhausting customs controls, we finally found ourselves standing outside of the airport in San Francisco.

There it was: the downtown skyline and we immediately got excited about the journey ahead. We were finally there. We could start enjoying the trip we won at the YOUNG FOUNDERS contest in the summer.

We ordered an UBER ride to our downtown hotel. It would be a bit misleading to say we had proper plans for the first two days, so we just got on with getting to know the city. We saw the seamless transition between Chinatown and the financial district. They say you experience the future in California a couple of years before it hits the rest of the world. And we did: There were electric scooters everywhere, and autonomous cars – as if it’s quite normal. We even got to try out an Amazon Go store. They’ve got cameras that notice when somebody removes an item from the shelf. When you walk out the front door, the price of the item is debited to your personal Amazon account – completely automatically. No cashiers behind a checkout.

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On the Saturday, Professor Högsdal joined us and we finished our sightseeing trip around San Francisco by visiting Golden Gate Overlook. From there, we traveled on to Silicon Valley where some exciting encounters awaited us. In the evening, we met Björn Hermann, the founder of Compass, who won YOUNG FOUNDERS in 2005. We also visited the Airbnb headquarters and went to the Transatlantic Sync conference in the evening.

Over the next couple of days, we visited the headquarters of Facebook, Apple, and Google. We also viewed the Tesla factory in Freemont. We got to see startups, accelerators, and makerspaces like BirdEye, the German Accelerator, Hothouse, and D-School. We went to Stanford University and met professors and students, founders of startups, and their co-workers. We got to talk about different economic models and the successes and failures of experienced founders.

Afterwards we drove down from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles, where our journey ended. There are so many things we brought back with us from the discussions we had and visits, such as the work cultures of the big players, which are really different. At Apple, they’re quite secretive and every detail of the Apple Park building has been designed in the Apple style. At Google, we sat in a surprisingly simple building and the culture felt more open. At Airbnb, a lot of devotion had gone into the meeting rooms, so they had things like the first rented Airbnb apartment and a replica of the War Room from Dr. Strangelove. The company’s a bit younger than Google and Apple, and the culture almost feels a bit playful. For example, a couple of years ago they still had a Head of Inebriation who was responsible for alcohol procurement. But they’ve still got ping-pong tables in the offices, beer after 4pm, and a bubble ball bath. The one-on-one sessions with Björn Hermann, Michael Pollmann, Jenna Danielson, and Frederik Hermann were a good opportunity to gain some insights into everyday life in Silicon Valley and the mentality there. We also heard from Björn and Frederik what work is like at a startup.

The Transatlantic Sync conference was the ideal chance for us to forge networks with other German people in Silicon Valley. The line-up of speakers was really impressive: Andy von Bechtolsheim (founder of Sun Microsystems and investor), Christoph Keese (author of the book Silicon Valley, which we could also listen to as an audio book on the car journeys), and John Hennessy (professor at Stanford and a board member at Google).

Of course a lot of the impressions we gained were just buzzwords and hot air. But Silicon Valley is and will remain an impressive and inspiring place – a place where the future is already happening today. During the week we spent there, we enjoyed the American lifestyle and even started to adjust to it. We sat in an eight-seater Ford rental car and listened to two audio books about startups and the Valley, and sometimes we listened to American music from the 70s. For us, our lasting impression of life in California was of huge all-you-can-drink beakers, oversized cars and refrigerators, but also the cheap and yummy burgers at In-N-Out.

And here’s an overview of our trip in numbers: 7 travelers, 7 nights, 1,300 miles on the road, 43 burgers, 3 startup visits, 3 tours of big companies, and countless impressions and unforgettable experiences.”


The YOUNG FOUNDERS competition is also enticing winners again this year with a trip to Silicon Valley. Students and apprentices have up to the beginning of January to submit a business plan for their innovative business concepts. To help, there is an input screen on the competition website. All business plans are individually assessed by the jury. In February, a business simulation starts (an online company simulation). Finally, the competition finishes in June 2020 with a grand final in Stuttgart.

YOUNG FOUNDERS has been sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research since 2002 and features prominently on the list of student competitions recommended by the “assembly of ministers of education of the German states.” The Steinbeis Innovation Center in Pforzheim is responsible for the underlying concept and running the competition. Alongside Steinbeis, YOUNG FOUNDERS is supported by a number of prominent sponsors: ALTANA, the Klingel Group, and Zeiss. The main sponsor is Porsche.

For more detailed information on the federal competition (in German only): go to www.jugend-gruendet.de


Franziska Metzbaur (author)
Project manager
Steinbeis Innovation Center: Business Development, Pforzheim University (Pforzheim)